We have hymnist William Cowper to thank for the sentiment that God works in mysterious ways. Exactly 250 years after the Englishman offered that assessment, the congregation at St. John Neumann Parish has seen that our creator operates in melodic ones, too.
Thanks to a unique concert grand piano that organist and music director Andrew Puntel bought, he and the flock have found themselves connected to an instrument prized not only for its age, but also its ability to heighten their heaven-centered gratitude.
Playing a central part in the community’s weekend Masses, the 99-year-old addition comes from the celebrated, Chicago-based Gulbransen line, an entity that served as a major contributor to the piano industry’s early 20th-century identity.
Given that Gulbransen crafted only a few eight-foot concert grand pianos because of their hefty price tags, completely handmade composition, and commission-only status, St. John Neumann’s parishioners can count their ears among the fortunate ones that have heard such a specimen’s amazing sounds.
“The Gulbransen concert grand has reanimated and uplifted our rhythms as a parish community in tender and powerful ways,” Puntel, the Bryn Mawr-based church’s organist since January 2018 and music director since January 2022, said.
Having hoped to fulfill pastor Monsignor Michael J. Matz’s wish to have an acoustic piano supplant the parish’s two digital ones for liturgical services, Puntel browsed an online sales forum in July 2020, finding himself struck when happening upon what he would later learn is indeed a cherished Gulbransen.
His awe stemmed from its size and relatively close location in Bethlehem, so a quick trip to inspect the piano in a band director’s basement apartment yielded the belief that it could augment his worship space.
Eager to add the $800 beauty and able to do so through a bequeathal from recently deceased parishioner Mary Ann Casciata’s family, he soon set about to see what it might need to sound as good as new.
“In my 20 years as a parish music director and music educator, I never once encountered a Gulbransen instrument,” Puntel stated. “I have played Cunningham, Steinway, Bösendorfer, and Yamaha [models], but the acquisition of this Gulbransen instrument was a true leap of faith.”
Rich Galassini helped to make that jump joyous by viewing the instrument a little later, recommending mechanical and cosmetic improvements. Co-owner of the Cunningham Piano Company, which has made pianos in Germantown since 1891, he has known Puntel for years and reveled in the chance to assist his peer, noting that “Developing and maintaining community partnerships has always been a large part of the DNA of Cunningham Piano.”
Galassini, an active church musician who has also shown off his singing talents on many occasions, including supporting roles when Andrea Bocelli has given local performances, had never seen such a large Gulbransen, as the company established its reputation by making entry-level pianos.
“Seeing the quality of the workmanship on this piano blew me away,” he said. “After I saw this instrument, I touched base with other piano colleagues around the nation. A few of them had seen a Gulbransen of this size and quality, but they are rare.”
Through Galassini’s confirmation and the Cunningham restoration team’s expertise, Puntel began to implement the Gulbransen as the aforementioned digital pianos’ successor, with an amazing element of the whole process being that Mary Ann Casciata was a descendant of Cunningham Piano’s founders.
“This particular Gulbransen is a standout instrument because the materials, the design, and, most importantly, the execution of those elements were so beautifully done,” Galassini offered.
A pivotal piece of St. John Neumann’s liturgical existence, the Gulbransen has become quite the endowment for the musical gifts of Puntel, who confided that he enjoys playing gospel accompaniments on it, as well as works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederic Chopin, while also gravitating toward improvisations on Gregorian Chant themes that are suitable for each sacred liturgical season or celebration.
“This was our first Easter Triduum with the instrument, and its depth and balance of tone brought a new solemnity and tempered beauty to the celebrations,” Puntel gushed.
“[Going forward,] I will experiment with combinations of organ and piano accompaniments that best support the celebrations of the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion, the solemnities of Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and Holy Trinity Sundays. In addition to accompanying the parish choir, children’s choir, teen assembly, and cantors, I will have the opportunity to perform on the instrument with guest instrumental soloists throughout the end of this liturgical year.”
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